Following on RC’s posting of the two articles by Arthur Kroker – on the Processed World of Marshall McLuhan and the Techno-Puritanism of American destining (Born Again Ideology) and reflecting on RC’s own commentary on the issue regarding technology and the post-human future, here is my first attempt at exploring some of the parameters of the question while seeking for answers and drawing out the larger peripheries before closing in/opening out on/to Sri Aurobindo as the prophet of the Life Divine as a post-technologial/post-human future.
As in Kroker’s analysis of McLuhan and also of his close braiding of Puritanism and the Enlightenment imperative in the American ethos, there is certainly more than a grain of truth to the idea that the Enlightenment is a metaphysically transposed theology, the grand onto-theology. Hegel indeed has been (and is being) read in this vein, as the grandest theorist of this white mythology of the Logos, the Word of God made flesh resurrecting itself into Universal Rationality as the end of History. Hence, to understand this, the essence of technology and the essence of the human need to be considered in their relation at this, the eschatological cusp of their mutual destinies.
But to complicate matters, there is also of course, capitalism, which neither Hegel, nor Teilhard or McLuhan have given much thought to in its intimate intermiscience with Technology and the Enlightenment teleology, though Hegel has been adapted into the Materialism of Marx in trying to make some sense of this and its overcoming. So perhaps we need to turn to him too.
Technology as the advance of human ability to “grasp” his world and “shape” it for his “use” – survival, utility, comfort, enjoyment, possession in that order of increasing aggression, has of course been with us since language, or the beginning of the human. But archaic cultures and civilizations have built their social worlds from another essence, not the essence of technology. This we can see quite clearly when we consider China, which invented paper, printing, the maritime compass and gunpowder, all indispensable foundations of the modern technological regime. Europe has used these technologies as the foundations of the Enlightenment – universal literacy and universal/targeted advertizing/propaganda; the voyages of discovery, the “final frontiers” and colonialism, the harvest of non-white peoples; the taming and mining of the earth and worldwide genocide. It took the “modern” combination of capitalism and the Enlightenment ideal to achieve this, China could and did not manage it. Mao Tze Dong wreaked his own version of it on his own people after learning of it from the west (and its critique, both at once, second- (or third)-hand) in a bid to disinfect the capitalism and retain the Enlightenment but produced only a bloodless population hungering to get back with a vengeance onto the desiring machine of techno-capitalism. But China of the archaic civilizational eras, those bygone impossible-to-recover times, now the rubbish of history, every day an aeon further in forgetting as our hyper-modern temporality with its flattening insistence on the surface of the present distances itself ever more completely from other temporalities (except to salvage their products as abstract aestheic capital), China produced its technologies as part of a differently balanced habitus, where conveniences and extensions came in the stride of a manifesting consciousness to which they were not primary.
Which brings up the Marxist critique of modernity as the techno-capitalistic desiring machine. Recent readings of the later Marx by Moishe Postone narrow his insight down to one which saw the fundamental shift as one from a society which produced primarily for its own consumption to a society which produced primarily for exchange with a view to negotiating competitive advantage. The self-orientation within a community embeds its products within its habitus and its internal discourse, and makes these products subservient to this social discourse and its interests and thus does not ascribe abstract use values to these products. Accordingly, it does not believe either in the production of surplus (except limited surpluses for emergency storage or barter/exchange with products not available to it but part of its discursive need). The shift occurs however when production of all products is primarily for exchange, detaching products from their habitus, ascribing abstract value to them and giving them the desirable potential of unbounded surplus production, corresponding to competitive advantage or accumulation of capital. Postone’s sophisticated expansion of this theme is too elaborate for me to present here beyond this nutshell, but I would recommend his Time, Labor and Social Domination. The bottom-line (for my purpose here) is that this ideological shift, arising out of a divorce between production and habitus, ends up in transforming habitus itself into a progressively abstract and universalizing derivative of its own products and their means of production – a habitus that is made to sink into the forgetfullness of all else and tailor its consciousness after the unbounded mechanical drive for the production of surplus and of markets to consume the surplus products. This endemically alienated habitus-production system is the condition we experience as modernity – not a static condition (though certainly static in the sense of its being a structure within which all its tremendous movement is trapped) but an ever-accelerating machine of increased production of products, of the means of production (production of technology), of consumers for the products (production of desire), of skill, knowledge, creativity and labor for the production of products, of the means of production and of the consumers of production (production of knowledge-workers and cultural capital). Like the Brahman in the verse from the Gita, which is said to be the sacrifice, the giver of the sacrifice, the enjoyer of the sacrifice and the goal of the sacrifice, Technology here is the primary product, the means of production of the product, the means of production of the consumer, and increasingly, the consumer him/herself and the knowledge-worker, reduced to a discursive punctuation mark, or binary fluctuation, Derrida’s “repeated violent insertions in the arithmetical machine.”
So, is there a way out? Is it going to be the Marxist revolution, the class war, are we going to have to begin worrying about which class we belong to or our neighbor or relatives? According to Postone, who is looking at the late writings of Marx, Marx himself did not see the solution coming from a division of society into bourgeouis and proletariat since he did not see the problem any more in subject/victim terms. The abstract alienated structure gathers a life of its own and makes all of us into its perpetrators and its victims. We internalize it through our habitus into our conscience, we are made into specific kinds of subjects by it. So if there is to be a revolution, Postone says, it must be an immanent revolutuon of human consciousness (yes, human, a post-humanity that needs to recover its humanity before exceeding itself if it is to “save itself” and not turn into a bioplasmic appendage of universal technology) within the episteme of techno-capitalism.
What does this mean in practical terms? What do we need to do? And are there any uses to technology if this happens? What about the universalization of Logos, Hegelian/Teilhardian/McLuhanian Noosphere/Universal Rationality/Sensory Omniscience? Where does it leave us? As wielders of pure consciousness or of new technologies? These and further questions are left for reflection for the time being.